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First Steps in the Wilderness

Monday, March 4th, 2019: Trips.

I didn’t move to the mountains of southwest New Mexico, near the Gila Wilderness, because I loved the landscape. I actually found it boring because unlike the mountains of my beloved desert, these mountains are heavily forested, and there’s very little exposed rock.

But it’d be a sin to live in a place surrounded by wild, undeveloped natural habitat and not take advantage of it. Gradually, I learned about local trails and special places from my new friends, and as my body started to fall apart and I could no longer handle the impact of running or the unnatural posture of cycling, I needed challenging hikes to maintain my cardio fitness and lower-body strength.

Paradoxically, the vast Gila Wilderness was one place I avoided from the beginning, because it encompasses the higher elevations of the Mogollon Mountains, and I could see that the peak trails were all forested in, without the long-distance vistas and sightlines that I enjoy in the desert. I respect forested habitat, but it’s a lot less interesting to me than open country with endless views.

Then our series of severe wildfires began, and in May 2012, the high core of the Mogollon Mountains was consumed. My hikes in other areas began to take on the theme of fire adaptation as I trekked through burn scars, but it took me a while to realize that now, I could probably venture into the Gila Wilderness and get the views I needed, because much of the forest had been killed off.

After the fire, it was many years before the Forest Service began to clear and reopen a few of the formerly vast network of wilderness trails. Hundreds of downed trees, so much erosion, required a tremendous effort to clear, and so far, seven years later, only a very few trails have been reopened, and even those are quickly re-damaged by erosion and deadfall within months after work crews leave.

This area is a longer drive from home – it takes me over an hour to reach a trailhead into the wilderness – but I could see from the maps that I could reach higher elevations on these trails than I could on the ones near home, so it would make a great weekend expedition.

After studying the Forest Service website and online topo maps, I picked a trail that could net me 3,000′ of elevation gain in 5 miles, and set out, on a beautiful day with blue skies, fluffy white clouds, and moderate wind.

The forest road to the trailhead was an adventure in itself, cut into the precipitous wall of a canyon, rising steeply into pinyon-juniper woodland. I entered the wilderness after less than half a mile of climbing, and traversed into a part of the canyon that had been burned intensely but now carried roaring meltwater from heavy winter snows, with added color from new grass, red boulders and carpets of rust-colored oak leaves. In the canyon bottom there were already many fallen snags blocking the trail, requiring frequent detours.

After two miles the trail turned north into a shady side canyon and began to climb more steeply along the tributary stream, below snow-patched eastern slopes. I stopped for a short lunch after another mile, then followed the trail up switchbacks in dense, unburned pine forest.

High on this eastern slope, the trail crossed the side canyon to climb steeply toward its southern shoulder. It was a hard slog that just went up and up without relenting, for about a half mile. And when it finally turned back north, it was even steeper. I was really laboring but I was determined to push myself and go the full 5 miles and 3,000′, which would be a milestone in my recovery.

The trail finally reached another turning point, and entered a forest of tall pines where the fire had blown rapidly through, killing sporadic trees but clearing all the undergrowth, leaving steep tan-colored slopes of dirt and gravel that were sterile-looking even seven years after the fire. I could see the skyline around me through the trees and felt I was approaching 9,000′ elevation, but I couldn’t tell where the trail went from here. After traversing this new slope for another quarter mile, past patches of snow, I reached a section of trail where snow had drifted across at a steep angle. I tried kicking steps for myself in the treacherous slope, but a few yards across I realized there was ice under the snow. If I slipped, I’d fall far and surely be injured.

I made my way back and looked for a detour, but the slopes above and below were equally daunting, consisting of gravel loosely embedded in dirt saturated from snowmelt. My recovering foot felt like it was nearing its limit for the day, so I decided to turn back. When I got home, I re-checked the topo maps and discovered I’d hiked over 8-1/2 miles round-trip and reached my goal of 3,000′ of net elevation gain, despite having to turn back at the snowdrift.

In retrospect, I realized that I still hadn’t found the wildfire-cleared slopes and open-country views I’d been looking for, because naturally, the Forest Service had focused on clearing trails in less-burned areas where crews faced less damage to repair. Maybe if I’d been able to go farther, I would’ve entered the backcountry where the fire did more damage, but I have no idea when or if I’ll be able to do that.

  1. Philippe says:

    Glad you didn’t take the risk of going past that snow drift. I share your sentiments about forest vs. desert and sightlines, but there are some western forests that I really enjoy. Aspen among my favorites. It would be nice to get to the burned/scarred slopes this spring to see what the wildflowers are like. Maybe you and I can go do it together sometime, but unfortunately not this year but definitely in future years.

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